Scenes from Sammy and His Behavior Problems

From Chapter 1: Getting to know Sammy

It’s the morning of the second day of school. My new third grade students sit in a circle on the floor, shining with that beginning-of-school look. I bring out a “magic shawl,” beneath which is hidden the learning material I’m about to introduce. The children are curious, eager to know what’s under the shawl. I unveil the Cuisenaire® Rods, colorful and inviting. I ask the children what they know about this material and how they think they might use it.

Paulina suggests building a tower. Max suggests creating a series of equal groups. The children listen carefully. I explain that they’ll each get a chance to try out classmates’ ideas, using just a few rods each. They’re excited.

Walking around the circle, I carefully give each child a small handful of rods. As I come to Sammy, I hand him a small assortment, similar to his classmates’.

In a flash, Sammy darts his hands into the bin, pulling out an additional big double handful for himself.

Quietly, I hold out my hand for Sammy to return his double handful. “Just a few each, Sammy,” I remind him calmly. As quickly as he had grabbed the rods, Sammy throws them at my face. Rods rain down. The look on Sammy’s face shows that he’s as surprised as I am. His classmates look stunned.

We all have students who present challenges to their classmates, themselves, and to us. Sammy was such a child. This incident was Sammy’s first major display of teacher defiance that year. There would be many more.

As the year went on, I came to see that Sammy’s behavior largely grew out of impulsiveness, combined with deep passions and a gripping need to put his ideas into action. Helping Sammy gain control of his behavior so that he could learn — and so the rest of the class could learn—would make our year together both challenging and rewarding . . .

Shared laughter helps us begin to bond

The children are writing letters to me about themselves, their families, their interests, and what they’re looking forward to in third grade. This is a customary activity for beginning the year in my classroom.

As the children write, I circulate, stopping at each child for brief but personal conversation. I comment on Jenny’s description of her cat and Garret’s fascination with bears. I ask about siblings and favorite television shows. I smile, listen, and look at each child: all behaviors that begin to build connections between us.

“Ms. Crowe, Ms. Crowe, what’s purple and 5000 miles long?” Sammy bounces up and down on his toes while waiting for me to answer. “I don’t know,” I answer, “What?”

“The grape wall of China,” he crows with excitement. Our shared laughter helps us begin to bond.

From Chapter 5: Days of peaceful learning, days of turmoil

Although I’m using reminders and redirections a lot, I don’t always calibrate them with pin-point accuracy.

We’re getting ready for our second field trip to the nature center. Children are hurrying to get the attendance and lunch count in to the office before we leave for the morning. Parent chaperones are in the classroom, ready to go. I’m supervising last-minute bathroom trips and reorganizing each parent’s list of children to supervise, since one chaperone didn’t show up and three children are unexpectedly out sick. There’s an unusual level of chaos for our classroom.

Sammy slips off to a corner and starts to make a historical diorama, one of his favorite activities. I don’t notice his absence until the children are in line with their coats on and I’m taking last-minute roll.

“Sammy?” I ask. “Sammy?” No answer.

Then Zoe points out, “He’s over there in the corner by the art area.” Sure enough, there he is, surrounded by scraps of colored paper, busily cutting out an elaborate Wampanoag fishing weir.

“Sammy, it’s time to go,” I say calmly. “You can clean up when we get back.”

“Just a minute,” he responds. “I have to finish weaving my weir.”

“Sammy, it’s time to leave now.” I’m still calm, but my voice is firm and authoritative. Sammy keeps cutting.

Twenty children and five adult chaperones watch as I walk over to Sammy, take the scissors out of his hand, and say, “Sammy. The bus is waiting. Get in line now.”

“No! No! No!” he shrieks. “I’m not going! I don’t want to go!”

I quickly think through my options. Leave him at school with an administrator? This would be my last resort, as the trip is a learning event, part of our curriculum. Get help from the school counselor or an administrator? It’s going to take a while to round up adult assistance, and the busses are waiting.

I decide to make use of what I have, the parent chaperones. I give the parents their group lists and ask them to walk their groups down to the bus.

With the audience gone and the room quiet, both Sammy and I relax just a bit. I calmly pick up Sammy’s diorama and put it in the closet. I get out his coat and tell him, “We’ll discuss this when we get back from the trip. Now it’s time to go.”

Bringing him a drink of water, I say, “The other kids are waiting for you on the bus. Remember, Max is your seat partner.”

Sammy perks up a bit at the prospect of sitting with the coveted Max. We start down the hall together. By the time we’re on the bus, he’s happy to be headed to the nature center.

From my journal: The issue is a recurring one. Sammy’s internal rhythms impel him forward—the art creation must be completed—but they conflict with the needs of the group.

In a different world, I can easily imagine Sammy spending his day with one tutor who follows his impulses, mining them for learning opportunities. Yet there is much for Sammy to learn when he matches his rhythms to the group. The world is made up of people working together, and no matter how creative Sammy’s ideas are, they can be enhanced by his learning to collaborate.

From Chapter 14: The last six weeks of school

We sit in a circle on the rug. “We’re going to create a memory book, a class book about our year,” I explain to the students. “We’ll start by listing the important things we did this year.”

Children volunteer their favorites: our trips to the nature center, the trip to the Native American Museum, working with our first grade buddies. They add those iconic third grade skills learned, such as cursive writing and multiplication facts.

Sammy reminds us about creating our own Native American museum, Jenny suggests our “favorite thing” research study. School subjects go on the list, too, such as writers’ workshop, readers’ workshop, math, science, and social studies. I write each idea on chart paper.

Each child chooses one topic from the list to write about. Sammy chooses our town history walk.

As he composes, I remember how reluctant he was in September to write even one word. He especially didn’t want to ruin his favorite subject, history, by writing about it.

Now he writes, “We saw authentic costumes, actual clothes that people wore in the 1770s. They were fragile. None of us touched them.”

The pages typed, the children illustrate their pages with line drawings. I add my page, a poem to the class. Zoe suggests a title, The Best Year for Our Community, and all the students spontaneously show agreement with thumbs up. I photocopy the book so everyone has a copy.

We gather again on the rug, and I read the book aloud to the class. The group is quiet when I finish, thinking about our year. Sammy breaks the silence by saying, “We were one awesome community.”

Caltha Crowe, a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher, taught elementary school children for nearly forty years and mentored new teachers for twenty years. She is also the author of Solving Thorny Behavior Problems: How Teachers and Students Can Work Together.

Tags: Challenging Behaviors